Preview: Elite: Dangerous

Everybody has them, games that define a period in their lives, for some it’s the early days of Championship Manager, for others Pacman but for me it has to be the original Elite and the sequel Frontier which are most definitely the games of my childhood.

As a child I lost countless hours to these games, and whilst quite simple in their concept they dazzled with their “under the hood” complexity and the ability to genuinely create your own story whilst playing.  I could recount the days that my best friend and I would play Elite cooperatively on my Commodore 64, one of us as the pilot, Zipstick in hand, the other the navigator, plotting courses, making sure that all systems were running properly and we wouldn’t die at our next pirate encounter.  I could regale you of stories of our first venture into the 16 bit world of Elite on an Atari ST where we managed to destroy a Thargoid ship with a missile at point blank range.  The Thargoids (the bad alien guys of the Elite series) you see have a built in ECM system which makes their destruction by missile nigh on impossible.. But WE did it. WE did the impossible.  Or times of barely managing to dock with the space station (which in itself was one of the most difficult tasks in the original Elite) with our hull on fire and our precious cargo of computers practically hanging out the cargo bay. Yes, Elite and Frontier were (and indeed still are) games that I remember incredibly fondly and will always have cherished memories of playing.  But let me back track a little. What is Elite?

Elite is a space trading/piracy/choose your own adventure game – it’s where the X series takes its inspiration from (for you young ‘uns out there who have no idea what I am talking about), but Elite is the game that started it all.  The idea of the game is simply to have fun and try and reach the coveted “Elite” status – basically becoming the hardest bad ass in the universe.  In the early 80s two University students, David Braben and Ian Bell, decided that they didn’t like the idea of constraints in games, why couldn’t you be given a spaceship and 8 galaxies to fly around in to do what you pleased?  Those genius developers managed to code the entire Elite game into a few kilobytes of memory on a BBC micro back in the day using a technique called procedural generation – effectively everything in the game is generated by the code. The galaxies, the planets and their names, the ships, everything. Only the rules/algorithms are hard coded and the computer does the rest. It’s a really genius trick to implement – the key being that a computer can never really generate random numbers and the numbers can be predicted and exploited.  If you don’t know much about Elite I suggest you take a look on the web – without this game SO many games you take for granted today just wouldn’t exist, and neither would the latest incarnation – Elite:Dangerous.

Dangerous started its journey as a Kickstarter project in 2012.  The very idea that Frontier Developments were considering a new Elite was perhaps the most excited I’ve been since I discovered Merlot red wine.  The Kickstarter stumbled a little in the middle, but by the end smashed its £1.25m target and managed to source nearly £1.6m in donations.  This was a huge wake up call to publishers who had previously been reluctant to take the gamble and fund Elite themselves, add to the mixture that Star Citizen absolutely obliterated its Kickstarter target a few months prior and it became clear that space simulators are back and in a BIG budget way.

So, having earned (ahem) a place in the Alpha test a few months ago I nervously fired up the new version – was it going to be any good? Would they retain the feel of Elite? My prayers were answered in a few seconds after firing up the throttle and hearing the fantastic “wub wub” of the engines as I zipped around space attacking various pirates and, for the first time, other commanders – yes my friends, Elite: Dangerous is now multiplayer.  I’ll admit, I had my reservations – spending days and days building up my credit fund to be blown away by a 7 year old kid for shits and giggles didn’t appeal to me at all, but Frontier have implemented it beautifully and put real penalties on all involved in piracy. The risk is there, but can be mitigated by playing cautiously and ensuring you are sensible with your precious cargo.

Firing up the Beta recently we now have (pretty much) the full game in a limited number of star systems to explore and my oh my is it beautiful. From the solar flares of the sun, to the wispy nebulae you hyperspace through the game is quite literally breathtaking. The commodities market is full of interesting items to buy and sell (not all legal) and the bulletin boards offer you a chance to make a quick credit by doing a courier run or helping clear out some pirates.  The game oozes atmosphere and its already dragging me back into the universe.   The final version will include numerous stories and campaigns to enjoy as well as 100 billion (yes, 100 billion) systems to explore.

That’s not all dear reader – Frontier plan to release numerous expansion packs to include planetary landings (a staple of the second Elite game) and also the ability to actually get out of your ship and walk around – meaning, potentially, some FPS action on the horizon maybe.  Having said that, the developers are very wisely sticking to the main core of the game for its first release towards the end of the year, and making sure that the quintessential Elite experience is there and bought up to date for a 21st Century audience.

Yes folks, this is going to be huge. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never heard of Elite or the sequel; if you even have the slightest interest in exploring a vast universe and amassing a fortune then this is most definitely the game for you – I cant wait to see you all in the Universe when the game releases later this year.


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